Star Wars Theology Returns to Campus for Jan Term

Rey, Kylo Ren, Leia, and Luke Skywalker are back, and audiences are issuing their verdict on the latest Star Wars installment. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opened Dec. 15, and in a galaxy not so far away, there’s another sequel due in January. That’s when Assistant Professor of Theology Anne Carpenter teaches a Jan Term course titled Star Wars and Theology for the second time.

A fan of the films whose favorite is Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Carpenter connects the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars with ideas from religion and philosophy. Students watch portions of Star Wars movies and read classical philosophers’ texts as well as The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy.

“We explore a lot of anthropological questions. What makes humans free? How do humans relate to the universe? How do my moral choices relate to my self, the Creator, and the world around me? Star Wars has particular answers it gives through its characters,” said Carpenter. “Star Wars is about religion—a made-up one, but it’s still a religion, so we get to ask religious questions.”

For insights, Carpenter turns to both Western and Eastern thought. She explained, “My background is in Western Christianity, so that’s one way we come at it. But Star Wars also borrows from Eastern ideas. This year, we’ll look at Buddhism, which is closer to what the Force is about.”

To illustrate the relationship between Star Wars and Buddhism, she points to the Bushido system of samurai, which dictates that they belong to their leader. Carpenter also brings in Christianity, noting, “In Star Wars, it’s a question of whether you can belong to the Force and whether you love the Dark Side or the Light Side. In the Christian religion, it’s whether you belong to idols or one God.”

Most students in her Jan Term class are better versed in Star Wars than religion. Carpenter noted, “With the new movie, we’ll have new material to talk about. The fun part is to share that with them and then get out of their comfort zone. Last year, students were surprised how much they enjoyed the religious half of the class, and they really enjoyed getting to know fellow Star Wars fans.”

The proof is in the numbers: Just like a Star Wars movie, Carpenter’s class sold out on opening day, with students registered for all available spots.